Seeking a Renaissance in San Francisco
The following excerpt is an overview of the production, by the Chitresh Das Dance Company.
The story of ‘Darbar’ takes place in the court of the great patron king of Kathak, Wajid Ali Shah, last king of Oudh in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. He ascended the throne of Oudh in 1847 and ruled for nine years. ‘Darbar’ depicts the decadence of Wajad Ali Shah’s court, replete with dancers, musicians, courtesans and poets (There are stories that the king had 300 wives and when he was told to run from the British he replied, “How can I run, there are no servants to bring my shoes”). The king is so distracted by his indulgences that he neglects to notice that his general (based on the historical figure Mizafir) is being tempted by the British to betray his king by offers of his own palace and new power.
‘Darbar’ highlights the artistic renaissance that took place in the courts of North India and the divide and rule tactics used by the British to conquer India, making a powerful contemporary political statement about religious tolerance, the responsibility of power and the risk of corruption.
Kathak is derived from the word katha or story. Originating thousands of years ago, the Kathakas of India would travel from temple to temple, narrating history and myth while entertaining with dance, music and mime. In the 15th century, Kathak moved into the courts of Muslim kings, evolving as a form of entertainment and it was in these courts that a class of dancing girls or nautchwalis (courtesans) emerged. Much later, in the 1800’s, Kathak gained prominence among the kings and feudal overlords as a classical art form.
Throughout this time, Kathak dance, along with classical music, theater and poetry, served as the vanguard of religious and cultural exchange. It was commonplace for Kathak dancers to tell stories or sing thumris (devotional songs) dedicated to the Hindu Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha in the courts of the Muslim nawabs. At the same time, Kathak began to incorporate traditional Muslim gestures and nuances – salaam (Muslim greeting) or the amad (Muslim welcome) for example. Modern day Kathak, thus, is a direct reflection of India’s history with Hinduism and Islam.
‘Darbar’ demonstrates how the arts bring people together across divisions and brings to light the history of colonialism in India.